Why Meir Dagan speaks out

Editor's Notes: There has been widespread criticism, but no plausible explanation, for the ex-Mossad chief’s anguished repeated warnings against an Israeli military strike on Iran. Don’t we owe this remarkable individual rather more than a rush to condemnation?

Dagan 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Dagan 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Meir Dagan is no fool.
He may be feisty and opinionated.
He may have long had his critics, and has attracted many more by going public in recent weeks with his warnings against a military strike on Iran, his complaints over Israel’s failure to utilize avenues for potential diplomatic progress with the Palestinians, and his intimations that Israel’s current political leadership may not be sufficiently competent.
But you don’t run the Mossad for eight years, retaining the respect of an elite body of supremely confident and capable operatives, and preside over innumerable successful missions, many of them so sensitive as to remain classified for years to come, if you’re not resourceful, innovative, skilled and exceedingly smart.
So Dagan would certainly have known, before he chose to speak out, that a central, certain impact of his repeated don’t-hit-Iran pleas would be to reduce the credibility of Israel’s claim to be keeping the military option on the table.
The only time that the ayatollahs halted their nuclear drive – freezing their weapons program and suspending uranium enrichment – was in 2003, when they feared that the United States, having come for Saddam Hussein, was heading their way next. Since then, Tehran has grown increasingly confident that no one is going to intervene militarily, with the very vaguely possible exception of Israel.
The American National Intelligence Estimate of 2007, which outrageously minimized the Iranian nuclear threat, cut the ground out from under any conceivable military option for the Bush administration. The chances of President Barack Obama sending US troops into action against the ayatollahs’ program were always slim to nil, and Tehran thinks that slim left town when Washington failed to champion the Iranian people’s revolt against the faked presidential elections two years ago.
Israeli political, diplomatic and security leaders, led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, have made anguished appeals to innumerable international players in the last few years, publicly and privately, to at least attempt to project a credible military threat precisely because only a genuine fear of attack is likely to deter the Iranians. You may not really intend to use force even if the Iranians continue to defy diplomatic and economic pressure, runs the Israeli argument in essence, but at least try to sound like you might.
Paradoxically, as a hugely frustrated Israel has been attempting to make clear to an often indifferent international audience, the less concerned the Iranians may be about the prospect of any such military attack, the more likely it is that one may actually prove necessary – as a last resort when everything else has failed to stop them.
All of this the super-smart Dagan had doubtless fully internalized long before he elected to depart from years of silence and brief a group of journalists off-the-record, in January, as he stepped down from the agency. “Don’t hurry to attack Iran,” he was quoted as telling them. Various actions had pushed Iran “away from the bomb until 2015 at the earliest,” he reportedly elaborated. “One should attack only if the sword is at the throat.”
And the same arguments would have been just as clear to the ex-Mossad chief when, nonetheless, he returned to his theme two weeks ago. Speaking publicly this time, at a conference in Tel Aviv, he declared that the idea of an Israeli Air Force attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities was “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.” He then added that anyone seriously considering any such strike needed to internalize that he would be “dragging Israel into a regional war that it would not know how to get out of. The security challenge would become unbearable.”
NOT ONLY is Dagan smart, however. He is also, by all accounts, a man who carries an unusually heavy sense of responsibility for the well-being of the Jewish people. This is no self-interested, narrow-minded or politically motivated figure. This is a man whose lifelong orientation is to protect his nation from any repeat of the murderous malice that engulfed us 70 years ago and that struck directly at his own family too.
This is the intelligence chief, remember, who, as our military correspondent Yaakov Katz reported in March of last year, kept a photograph on his office wall of an elderly bearded Jew, forced to kneel at the feet of a pair of Nazi soldiers. “Look at this picture,” Dagan would urge his visitors. “This man, kneeling down before the Nazis, was my grandfather just before he was murdered. I look at this picture every day and promise that the Holocaust will never happen again.”
The last thing such an Israeli patriot, such a grandson, would ever do, surely, is risk putting the Jewish nation into greater renewed danger. And to do so knowingly, calculatedly, repeatedly… well, it would simply defy rational explanation. It would beggar belief.
SO WHAT, then, are we to make of the sight, and more relevantly the sound, of Meir Dagan breaking cover, leaving his habitual silent habitat, to repeatedly deride the notion of a solo Israeli military option for Iran, when he knows the Iranians will interpret this as widening their path to the bomb still further? How are we to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable?
Dagan, it might be noted, is not the first intelligence chief to take a stand against ostensible government thinking about targeting an enemy nuclear program. That’s not the issue. Yitzhak Hofi, who headed the Mossad in 1981, vehemently opposed that June’s Menachem Begin-ordered strike on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear facility at Osirak. It was argued that Iraq was not yet close to building a bomb, and that a furious response from the Reagan administration – which, of course, did not materialize – would cause more harm to Israel’s national security than Saddam’s program could. But Hofi protested behind closed doors. Dagan has smashed the mold in bringing his bitter objections, ahead of time, into the public arena.
From inside the government, one withering explanation for his outbursts has been that he is acting for selfish, partisan purposes – that here is a man a few months out of his prestigious job, now beginning the journey into the political arena. These are the opening salvoes of his Knesset campaign, intended to discredit the leaders he hopes to usurp.
But how demeaning, how petty, and how impossible that is to square with the portrait of the Dagan we have known hitherto – the picture of Meir Dagan, defender of the Jews. Would he really risk undermining Israel’s deterrent capacity in the face of Iran’s nuclear drive for the sake of narrow political ambition?
A more plausible answer stems from the fact that Dagan’s central preoccupation as head of the Mossad lay in finding the means to thwart Iran, and if not thwart then at least delay the ayatollahs, without the necessity of overt military action. That’s what Ariel Sharon hired him to do in 2002, and what Sharon and subsequent prime ministers kept reappointing him to keep on doing. And if the foreign reports – naturally unconfirmed by Israel – are any guide, his agency has indeed managed to stave off that Islamist bomb by some years via a variety of subtler interventions, such as the Stuxnet computer virus, the assassination of certain figures central to the program and the sabotaging of key equipment.
According to all manner of reports, the Mossad has been provided with considerable additional budgetary resources for this mission. More than on any other single issue, therefore, it is on thwarting Iran that the agency’s prestige stands or falls. Now, though, Dagan is gone from the Mossad, and his concern – the concern that has led him to speak out – is that its ability to keep on keeping Iran from the bomb is underappreciated, and that the temptation to resort to military action is thus unjustifiably on the rise.
Another possible explanation derives from a fault that might be difficult for so successful a Mossad chief to avoid, even a Mossad chief as utterly devoted to the cause of his people as this one: hubris.
Dagan came in for no little criticism after the assassination of the self-confessed murderer and Hamas missile importer Mahmoud Mabhouh in Dubai in January 2010. With the Dubai police claiming to be hot on the trail of what they said was the Mossad gang responsible for the hit, photos of the alleged team ranged across the front pages of the world’s newspapers, and a series of aggrieved nations taking diplomatic measures against Israel for the alleged abuse of their nationals’ passports, it was widely suggested that Dagan had underestimated the Dubai cops’ capacity for effective detective work and paid too little heed to the operation’s potential international fallout. Dagan had been in the job too long, anonymous ex-Mossad insiders sniped. He had become dangerously over-confident.
As anyone familiar with the sometimes strained interface between Israeli political leaders and Israeli security chiefs will tell you, the latter are generally of the withering opinion that the former don’t know what they’re doing and that the country would fall apart were it not for the wiser heads at the helm of the Mossad, the Shin Bet and the IDF. Dagan gave considerably more than a hint of that conviction himself two weeks ago in Tel Aviv, with this devastating observation: “I feel obligated to express my opinion on certain matters. The prime minister and defense minister are the ones in charge, but sometimes good sense and a good decision don't have anything to do with being elected.”
Have we, therefore, been witnessing the irresponsible rantings of a man who has allowed his remarkable achievements to inflate his ego to bursting point? Is he now incapable of properly balancing concerns he may have about the deficiencies of others with the wider national good? Has he, in short, lost all sense of perspective?
Or, finally, ought we to take Dagan’s warnings at face value and regard them as reasonable and credible? Should we conclude that here is a highly intelligent figure, wholly dedicated to the best interests of the Jewish nation, who has realized that Israel’s current leadership simply cannot be trusted to heed private, unarguable warnings against the catastrophic consequences of a military strike on Iran, who is worried that such an unthinkable strike may indeed be imminent, and who has exhausted all the other discrete means at his disposal? Is he now utilizing his personal weapon of last resort – a public appeal, backed up by his peerless credibility – desperately praying that this will succeed where all else has failed to drag Israel back from the brink?
That last explanation may reflect best on Meir Dagan. But if he’s right, it suggests a dire reality for the rest of us. And, like all the other speculative interpretations presented here, it seems deficient.
For one thing, there is absolutely no indication that Israel is currently contemplating a strike at Iran – not with the sanctions option still being pursued, with avenues still presumably open for further sabotage, and with the “Arab spring” rendering the region so thoroughly unpredictable. For all we or anyone else knows, the improbable scenario of the Syrian people taking their lives into their hands to try to oust the Assad regime, at a price of more than 1,000 dead and counting, may yet be replicated in Iran, potentially obviating the need for devastatingly high-risk military intervention.
And for another, if the untouchable men in the decision-making hot seats have, nonetheless, made up their minds to strike, how successful is an ex-Mossad chief’s plea to the impotent public likely to prove?
WHICH LEAVES me with the fervent hope that Dagan, the master intelligence operative, who is regarded by many insiders as one of the greatest Mossad chiefs, is playing a more subtle game, pursuing a smarter strategy, than anyone has yet figured out. And that somewhere down the line we will realize – as we did, after all, when news first broke of the tantalizing non-military strike that was Stuxnet – that something was afoot that we hadn’t thought possible or maybe even dreamed of.
Then we will understand why it was that Meir Dagan broke years of silence in 2011 and chose to speak out brutally against the notion of Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. And those who criticized him and doubted him will belatedly recognize that they owed this remarkable man a little more credit, and that in everything he said and did, he remained true to the promise he would habitually issue when he showed visitors in his Mossad office that heartbreaking photograph of his grandfather.